The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a gambling game that offers the chance to win a large sum of money by paying a small amount of money for the ticket. A key feature of a lottery is a mechanism for pooling the money that people have placed as stakes on tickets and awarding the prize money at the end of the drawing. This may be accomplished by having a hierarchy of sales agents collect and pass the money from individual buyers up through the organization until it has been “banked.” Alternatively, some national lotteries divide the tickets into fractions, usually tenths, and sell them individually for a much lower cost than the full-ticket price.

The first recorded lotteries appear in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, where local authorities used them to raise funds for town fortifications and charity. They were popular, and the word “lottery” itself probably derives from Middle Dutch loterie, or from a variant on the word lot, meaning fate. As the century progressed, lottery advocates no longer tried to sell it as a painless form of taxation; they began to tout the idea that winning the lottery would pay for a single line item in the state budget—usually education but sometimes public parks or elder care or aid for veterans.

Almost every aspect of the lottery is designed to keep people playing—or at least coming back for more. That’s not really any different from the strategies employed by tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers, only it is done by governments that are supposed to be devoted to social good.